Top 9 Things to do in the Mojave Desert

The Kelso Depot is a great stop for the train lovers in your family. Mojave National Preserve
The Kelso Depot offers the perfect stop for the train lovers in your family. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Southern California’s desert offers a vast diversity from vegetation to wildlife. The largest protected desert in the world is located at the Mojave National Preserve, conveniently located between two interstates. Located East of Barstow, California, this area is the rain shadow of the towering pine-covered mountains about 100 miles west. Visitors can drive through and see the rich diversity of life in the desert. Here are the top things to do in the Mojave Desert.

Top 9 Things To Do in the Mojave Desert

  • Stop by the Visitor Center
  • Take a Scenic Drive Through the Preserve 
  • Take a Hike 
  • Visit the Kelso Dunes 
  • Stare at the Lava Tube Skylight
  • Take a Look at the Boulders from the Viewpoint
  • Spot A Jackrabbit
  • See Springtime Wildflowers
  • See Joshua Trees

The Mojave National Preserve

From pinyon-pine speckled mountain peaks to valleys teeming with creosote bush, the Mojave National Preserve challenges the perception that a desert is a barren landscape. The Mojave Desert is greener than its California neighbor, Death Valley National Park.

With a convenient location between two major interstates, it’s an easy area to explore in a few hours. You can take a scenic drive, and you might spot a jack rabbit’s gigantic ears hiding among the underbrush. Whereas a national park offers more facilities, like lodges and dining. A national preserve is set aside to protect resources, like a vital ecosystem.

Mojave National Preserve At a Glance 

Year Established: 1994
Located: Southern California
Size: over 1.5 million acres
Top Features: Kelso Depot and Joshua Trees

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The Mojave National Preserve Visitor Centers

This is your best place for information and advice along with restrooms and water fountains.

Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center

Get maps and park brochures, use the restrooms and refill water bottles at the Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center.

Located at 2 Black Canyon Rd. Open Friday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Tuesday through Wednesday).

Kelso Depot Visitor Center

The Kelso Depot houses one of the Mojave National Preserve Visitors Centers.  Originally built by Union Pacific to help LA-bound trains up the two-percent grade of the Cima Summit with helper engines. The Kelso Depot provided a service area for Union Pacific and the vital water needed for steam engines along the Salt Lake-Los Angeles train route.

In 1924, Union Pacific opened a train depot, and it was designed in the Mission Revival architecture style.  Union Pacific closed the depot in 1985 as it wasn’t vital to operations. A preservation group and later the National Park Service bought and renovated the building to be used as the Visit Center.

Located at 90942 Kelso Cima Road.

Note: The Kelso Depot Visitor Center is undergoing repairs and is closed until further notice.

Scenic Drives in the Mojave National Preserve

See the diversity of the desert as you drive across the Mojave National Preserve.

Kelbaker Road–This is a 56-mile road that is the main road in the Mojave National Preserve.

Cima Road–This 10-mile scenic drive connects Interstate 15 to the town of Cima. Joshua Tree are located along this route (though some were destroyed in a fire in 2020). This road is used to get to the Kelso Dunes area.

Essex Road--This road connects Interstate 40 to Hole-in-the-Wall. It also continues to Mitchell Caverns in Providence Mountains State Recreation Area (reservations required).

Zzyzx Road–This 4-mile road is known for its odd name. It deadends at the California State University Desert Studies Center.

Hiking in Mojave National Preserve

If the weather is pleasant then take a hike in the Mojave Desert. Remember to carry water no matter the season.

Hole-in-the-Wall Nature Trail–A .5-mile easy loop at the Hole-in-the-Wall campground.

Lake Tuendeu Nature Trail–A .25 mile walk for younger kids, located off of Zzyzx Road.

Lava Tube–A 1.0-mile trail to explore an underground lava tube.

Rock Springs Trail–A 1.0-mile trail exploring Rock Springs.

Kelso Dunes–A 3-mile roundtrip hike exploring a popular sand dune.

Teutonic Peak Trail–A 3-mile roundtrip hike to see the highest concentration of Joshua trees in the world, Trailhead is 12 miles south of Interstate 15 on Cima Road.

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Kelso Dunes

The Lava Tube–This tube formed 27,000 years ago and is located in the Cima Dome Volcanic Field. The Lava Tube includes a skylight in the tube.

Boulders Viewpoint Area–See the Granite Mountain Boulders from the viewpoint, 7 miles north of Interstate 40.

Animals of the Mojave Desert

Animal spotting is one of the top things to do in the Mojave Desert.

  • Black-tailed Jackrabbit
  • Desert Tortoise
  • Coyote
  • Cougar
  • Bats
  • Bighorn Sheep
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Plants of the Mojave Desert

The Mojave Desert is diverse since it ranges in elevation. Find a variety of plants inside the preserve.

  • Joshua Tree
  • Creosote bush
  • Cholla
  • Springtime wildflowers like Mojave sage, desert paintbrush and yuccas

Wildflower Viewing in Mojave Desert

If the rains come over the winter, wildflowers can bloom in spring. In the Mojave Desert, spring comes early. For elevations below 3,000 feet, wildflowers start blooming in mid-February and continue until Apri. In higher elevations over 3,000 feet, wildflowers start blooming in March and continue until mid-June.

The best areas for wildflower viewing are Cima Cinder Cones, Kelso Dunes, Cima Dines and Mid Hills Campground. The most common wildflowers in Mojave National Preserve are Desert 5 Spot, Desert Paintbrush, Beaver Tail Cactus and Desert Mariposa Lily.

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Outside of the Kelso Depot in Mojave National Preserve
Outside of the Kelso Depot, the carful of kids can’t resist the urge. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

History of Mojave National Preserve

The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 established the Mojave National Preserve. At the same time, the act also expanded and upgraded the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments into national parks.

North America features four deserts. The Mojave Desert is the transitional desert landscape in-between the Great Basin Desert, the high desert, to the north and the Sonoran Desert, the low desert, to the south. The remaining desert is the Chihuahua Desert, located near Big Bend National Park.

The Joshua tree dominates the Mojave Desert, a species of yucca and not a tree at all. Kids love Joshua trees and find them near Cima Dome.

National Monuments inside Mojave National Preserve

President Obama designated three national monuments in the Southern California desert. With this designation, critical ecosystems between existing parks are now connected. With the Mojave National Preserve, the Joshua Tree National Park and the national monuments, this area protects the largest desert conservation area in the world.

Castle Mountains National Monument extends the protection of the Mojave National Preserve. It’s surrounded on three sides by the Mojave Preserve and borders the Nevada state line.

The Sand to Snow National Monument features the most biodiverse area in Southern California. This monument includes Mt. San Gorgonio, the tallest mountain in Southern California.

The Mojave Trails National Monument connects the land between the Mojave National Preserve to the north and the Joshua Tree National Park to the south. As the largest new monument, it encompasses 1.6 million acres for protection during migration.

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The carful of kids finish up their Junior Ranger booklets in the Kelso Visitors Center. Mojave National Preserve
The carful of kids finish up their Junior Ranger booklets in the Kelso Visitors Center. Credit: Catherine Parker

Kids at Mojave National Preserve

My kids love animals, and animal spotting is easier in the Mojave National Preserve than in woodland parks. We spotted jackrabbits and coyotes along the paved roads in Mojave. Animal spotting keeps kids looking out the windows instead of their screens.

Stop off at a Visitors Center for an interpretive area, restrooms and water fountains. I picked up the free Junior Ranger booklets.

The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about Mojave National Preserve. It’s free and takes about an hour to complete. My kids love the badges that the park rangers present them after completing their booklets.

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The Junior Ranger Program is a great way to learn more about the park. Mojave National Preserve
The Junior Ranger Program gives families a way to learn more about the park and teachers love kidslearning on vacation.Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Camping in Mojave National Preserve

Hole-in-the-Wall Campground
    • Year-round
    • First Come, First Served
    • 35 sites, no hookups
    • Potable water with vault toilets
Mid Hills Campground
    • Year-round
    • First Come, First Served
    • 26 sites, no hookups
    • No water and vault toilets

Where’s Mojave National Preserve

Located between Interstate 15 and Interstate 40, the Mojave National Preserve is 200 miles east of Los Angeles. Baker, California, offers services like gas and lodging, located next to the preserve. Las Vegas, Nevada, provides the closest international airport (LAS), 90 miles away.

The Mojave National Preserve is free and open 365 days a year and 24 hours a day. Paved roads can be sun-baked and rough in areas, like the major routes Kelbaker Road and Kelso Cima Road.

Note: There is a saying in the desert, when you see gas, buy gas. There is no gas for sale in the Mojave National Preserve. Cell service is spotty.

Visit the Mojave National Preserve, outside Barstow, California, to learn about this unique desert landscape. Got all the details for your trip to this National Park Service site in Southern California, like hiking trails, campground and scenic drives. Where is the Mojave Desert | What to see in the Mojave Desert | Road Trips in Southern California | National Parks in California #NPS #California

Catherine Parker has a passion for travel and seen all 50 U.S. States. As a former flight attendant with one of the largest airlines, there isn't a North American airport that she hasn't landed in at least once. Since clipping her professional wings after 9/11, she combines her love of the open road with visiting architectural and cultural icons. She is based out of Central Texas dividing her time between writing and restoring a pair of 100-year-old houses. She shares her life with her three kids and her husband.

1 Comment

  1. Kelso Depot is closed until 2023 due to HVAC problems. Check out the info on the National Park Service website for the preserve.